Categories We Live By

Reviewed by Katharine Jenkins

Categories We Live By: The Construction of Sex, Gender, Race, and Other Social Categories (Studies in Feminist Philosophy), by Ásta (Oxford University Press), £22.99/$35

Categories We Live By investigates human social kinds, such as gender and race, in a way that seamlessly blends metaphysics, social ontology, and feminist philosophy. As Ásta observes, “camping out at that intersection can be a cold and lonely endeavour”: each group has a different conception of what philosophy should aim to do, and there is plenty of mutual suspicion. As a fellow camper at that intersection, I know this all too well -- which is why I am so heartened by the way that this excellent and exciting book manages to make that intersection a warmer and more inviting place.

This monograph develops and expands on the distinctive conferralist account of social kinds for which Ásta is already well known. According to Ásta, to have a property like “being a woman”, “being gay”, or “being disabled” is to have a certain social status in a particular context. You get this status by other people adopting a certain attitude towards you: they confer the status onto you, usually on the basis of believing you to have a certain feature. What it means to have that status is to be under certain social constraints and enablements: some things are easier in virtue of how people have categorised you, and some are harder. Some conferrals are more official and codified, resulting in “institutional” properties; some are more informal and tacit, resulting in “communal” properties.

Chapters 1 and 2 outline the conferralist account and show how it functions as a way of understanding social construction. Chapters 3 and 4 focus specifically on sex and gender and include nuanced analysis of the work of feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler. Chapter 5 applies conferralism to some other categories (including race, religion and disability), while Chapter 6 develops an account of social identity that complements the conferralist account of social properties.

Throughout, Ásta brings to bear on her task an impressive combination of precision and perceptiveness, demonstrating an acute awareness of the importance and complexity of the topics under discussion. Conferralism is applied to a number of different real-world examples, and it emerges as an attractive way of understanding social construction and human social kinds.

It would have been good to have a little more detail on how the account handles the phenomenon of intersectionality, which is, roughly speaking, the fact the oppression experienced by a black woman, for example, cannot be neatly separated into the oppression she experiences as a woman and the oppression she experiences as a black person. Ásta shows how her treatment of identity is sensitive to intersectionality, but it is less clear how intersectionality is meant to feature in the account of properties themselves – for example, the property of being a woman.

Ásta explains that someone’s overall status in a particular context is a product of all of the different constraints and enablements that a person is under in that context as a result of each of their socially significant features. This product is not a straightforward matter of adding up all the different constraints and enablements, but something more complicated in which “the presence of some features can trump others”.

This seems to suppose that there is such a thing as the constraints and enablements that are typically applied to women in general (in the context in question), which then factor into a given woman’s overall status, possibly in a complex way. But given that different women with different intersectional identities are subject to different constraints and enablements, can we really say that there are any such general constraints and enablements?

Consider a couple of examples. First example: A black woman politician has a harder time getting the police to respond appropriately to death threats that have been made against her than a white woman politician who receives similar threats; both are taken less seriously than their male colleagues. Second example: A black woman tennis player has a harder time translating her sporting excellence into sponsorship deals than white woman tennis players, especially those who also meet conventional beauty standards; all earn less than their male counterparts. What, then, determines the constraints and enablements that are associated with the property “being a woman” in the context of a tennis match, or a meeting room in the Houses of Parliament, and which are supposed to factor into the overall social status of a particular, individual woman in that context? It is not clear how we are supposed to answer this question.

I don’t think this is necessarily a defect in Ásta’s account, much less a serious one. The social world is messy, and we ought to be suspicious of accounts that make it seem too simple. Still, a little more detail on just how that messiness plays out when it comes to the intersectional dimension of properties such as “being a woman” would have further improved this excellent book. 

Share This

Katharine Jenkins is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and received her PhD from the University of Sheffield in 2016. She works in social philosophy with a particular focus on social categories, feminist philosophy, and the critical philosophy of race.